How Writing Short Stories Can Improve Your Novel Writing Skills (And Writing In General)

String lights clumped up in the middle of a novel

Before we begin, I’d just like to announce my cyberpunk short’s acceptance into the Fish Eats Lion Redux anthology which, for me, puts the rad into my trad-publishing ambitions.

I’m pretty proud of this piece, since Singaporeans were given priority for acceptance, and here I am, a random Malaysian, just trying to belong among the other talented writers from across the Causeway.

Maybe I’ve finally paid my dues. They say you need to get your first million words down before you get to the good stuff. Or maybe I just got lucky.

Either way, here’s a totally scientific (and totally not anecdotal or anything) post about why short-story writing would benefit the novelist, even if they don’t plan to pursue the genre.

No details needed

The novel is actually pretty lenient when it comes to setting up your story, but that brings its own set of problems, such as having to tie all your loose ends to give your audience the satisfaction they deserve.

Not so with short stories. The thing I enjoy most is that I don’t even need to explain anything I don’t want to, and leave it to my audience to figure things out for themselves.

I could, say, write about traffic jams while time travelling. How did time travel come about in this particular world? I don’t know. What’s my main character’s name? Beats me.

But will the main character be late for his appointment? Even while he’s travelling through time? Now that’s the story I came to explore.

Your short stories could blossom into novels

My first novel (that was also picked up for publication) had actually existed as a short story before it became a book. So short stories, while complete on their own, can turn into a whole lot more if allowed to compost in your mind.

That means that novelists shouldn’t eschew the short story in pursuit of its lengthier counterpart, because some of your juvenile ideas could very well be your next magnum opus.

That Reddit writing prompt you played around with last weekend? That could be a novel. My idea about time travel and traffic jams? That could be a whole series. We’ll never know.

At least until we give it a try.

You can hone your on-spec writing

Writing on-spec means finishing an entire story and sending it out to publishers in hopes that they’ll accept it. Basically, the fiction life in a nutshell.

As a short story writer, you get to do this more often than novelists, with each submission offering you valuable experience of being in the trenches.

At least you won’t have to wade through hundreds of thousands of words only to experience your first rejection (or acceptance).

And if you take things to the next level, you’ll start writing stories for particular calls for submissions instead of sending in your trunk stories that best match the guidelines.

So if you’re looking for writing drills to hone your skills, this is it.

You get to learn through variety

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written myself into a corner, even after completing my sixth novel to date.

You’d think I’d learn my lesson by now, but as a pantser, I’d be 60,000 words deep before realising I’d screwed up.

What’s worse are the legacy mistakes, where one tiny detail at the end of the novel means changing everything else about your story.

With short stories though? The mistake could be your entire plot point. Heck, you could even rewrite your entire story from scratch and still have time to cook dinner.

Also, can we talk about the saggy middle? Oh the grind of it. You could spend months taking potshots in the dark, and you’ll still be fumbling through the same plot.

Doesn’t happen with short stories though. No matter how much you hate a certain premise, you can still finish it and move on to the next one. Which is a pretty good way to practise your storytelling skills.

Because what this teaches you is how to tell a story from beginning to end. And as Chuck Wendig puts it, the best thing you can do as a writer is to finish your shit.

It shows you what matters in a novel

Speaking of saggy middles, do you know what happens in my novels? People travelling from point A to point B. A lot. Like ‘enough walking to get from Asia to the Americas’ a lot.

Even in a story where steel tentacles reach down from the sky to impale the last surviving humans, I still manage to fill it up with scene after scene of mundane commute.

Which is why writing short stories have been beneficial to me. I’ve started to learn what makes a scene tick, and how I can incorporate more tension within each chapter. No more navel-gazing and empty conversations on long walks.

In fact, Chuck Palahniuk writes his books in the same, compartmentalised fashion too. In his book Consider This, he explains how he writes each chapter as a standalone story, before assembling them into what would be a full-length novel. Now ain’t that interesting.

Kill your darlings? What darlings?

Not everybody has the privilege to work under a harsh editor that’ll beat all your self-infatuation out of you (yes, I’m talking about you, Bea). But writing short stories would make a decent enough substitute.

Because for novels, you could write a million words and only feel the sting of rejection maybe ten times. Over ten years. Once they get around to reading your manuscript.

Write the same amount in short stories and you could technically get rejected once a day, every day, for a year straight. Now that’s a lot of learning.

And since I’m convinced that writing is a numbers game more than it is a word game, you’ll definitely gain an objective take on your work through simply writing more short stories.

Also, it’s much easier to distance yourself from a story you wrote in six days versus one you wrote in six months.

Go short to go long

Just like how the sci-fi writer can benefit from reading a romance novel or two, so too can the novelist benefit from practising the art of the short story.

In fact, I’ve learned so much more from short stories than I would have if I’d just stuck to writing novels, that I’m going to commit to writing them on the regular.

At the very least, I’d be getting my million words out of the way. At best? Another short story acceptance.


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90 thoughts on “How Writing Short Stories Can Improve Your Novel Writing Skills (And Writing In General)

  1. First of all: congratulations!! That’s amazing about your short story! Secondly, I love this post! Flash fiction and short stories are so much fun to write. It’s much more relaxing to craft a short story than a novel and, as you said, it helps to hone your writing skills. 😊

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  2. Hi Stuart. Writing short stories sounds more useful than I thought. I started with them and dropped them once I began the novel. But you’ve raised some interesting ideas. I love your ‘saggy middle’ comments. That’s where I am now and sometimes I feel like I’m adrift in the ocean in a slowly sinking boat. It’s horrible. I think in total I may well have reached the million word mark, too. I’ll read more of your posts. Thanks.

    Like

    • Every middle is the saggy middle for me now, lol. Worst part is, even as I slog through it, I know I’m going to delete a huge chunk of the words—I just don’t know which yet. Kinda demoralising, but I’ve accepted that as part of the journey. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, Carla!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Stuart,

    I dig the idea of not needing to add many details with short stories. This allows words to flow. Any skilled writer in any niche lets words flow freely without stopping to add or edit anything. Such flow works for writing novels, short stories, blog posts or even short blog comments.

    Ryan

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    • This is exactly why I love morning pages, because it trains me to enter that specific flow of just putting words on paper. Best part is, sometimes this flow produces better work despite its haphazard nature. Thanks for stopping by, Ryan!

      Like

  4. Seeing your piece reminded me of an article I read a while back. How if your story isn’t working, you could make the story into a different medium. Like your novel could be condensed as a short story for instance and vice versa. Thank you for sharing!

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  5. “you need to get your first million words down before you get to the good stuff” this reminds me of how my tae kwon do instructor is always saying “don’t start counting the reps until it starts to hurt, that’s when it’s working.” also, yes, short stories can lead to a novel! that’s how I started writing the book I’m currently working on. It began as a short story that stuck with me and eventually I started to build the world out for a longer length manuscript.

    Like

    • I actually subscribe to that saying. The reps that matter are the ones beyond your comfort zone. And I believe it’s in the discomfort where we find our true selves.

      e.g. I can run 10km every day, but if 10km is easy for me, it doesn’t matter if anyone else considers it far, because I’m not even reaching my challenge threshold.

      Thanks for your continual insights, Meagan!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: How Writing Short Stories Can Improve Your Novel Writing Skills (And Writing In General) – Sean Malloy Writes

  7. Thanks for writing this and sharing with us. This has reignited my interest in writing more short stories. My 1st novel has kept me busy for too long and I need to get back to the short story form again. Keep up the good work Stuart.

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    • And thank YOU for stopping by with this wonderful comment! I think it’s good that you’re busy with your first novel. At least it’s writing, and you can’t go wrong with any form of writing.

      But yeah, a little change of pace could even turboboost your novel skills when you get back to it, so I hope you give it a go and let me know how it goes.

      Thanks again, Sean!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the words of encouragement Stuart. I’ve started with some writing prompts to help start some short stories recently and even began writing my first poems. I’ve learned getting a little done is better than nothing. So that’s where I’m at right now. Looking forward to hearing more from you. Thanks again.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: How Writing Short Stories Can Improve Your Novel Writing Skills (And Writing In General) – Drink Coffee Write

  9. Hi Stuart, Hearty congratulations on your cyberpunk short’s acceptance into the anthology. I like what you say about how writing is a numbers game more than a word game. I’m still a long way from a million words so I’m not writing enough . Thanks for a kindly post.

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    • Hope this serves as a reminder that you should squeeze in a few minutes every day to get a hundred words out or so. I know you’re busy with life and work, but slow and steady wins the race, eh? Thanks for your support, LH, and here’s to bumping up the numbers together!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Why You Shouldn’t Pay For Writing Courses (And The One Reason Why You Should) | Your Friendly Malaysian Writer

  11. This is fantastic advice. I wrote short stories a lot when I was a teenager, but I always struggled on how to conclude them without the ending feeling abrupt. Sometimes letting go of your stories can be so hard as a writer.

    Anyway, great content, looking forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, Raymond Carver has abrupt endings down to a pat. Perhaps you should check him out if you haven’t already. Even famous authors like Neil Gaiman has a weird way to end short stories, which I think is an art of its own in the genre. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve written 5 novels. I only tried to get one published. I self-published 3 While I was rejected and threw 2 into the trashcan. I used to do pantsing. I still do not make tight outlines but work with the story. I usually only scope out what’s useful in a story, and you probably know that being a pantser. Your ideas build on themselves naturally. A few short stories have gone to amateur places on the web. It’s therapy for me, to improve cognition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s amazing! So many ‘writers’ only dream of writing one novel, but you’ve done so much, and that’s inspiring to me.

      It’s cool that writing stories is therapy for you though, because when it comes to fiction, it feels like work for me.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing!

      Like

  13. First off, congratulations on the acceptance. That is great to hear and a badge of honor for any writer to be put in an anthology!
    Secondly, I was toying with the idea of doing a serial story series, which are basically episodic short stories. Mostly to keep my gears going and to gradually improve my skill over time. Also, I need to get to those 1 million words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You? Wanting to reach one million? Haven’t you already, though? With your epic manuscripts? :P

      It’s pretty awesome that despite the projects you have, you’re still keen on taking on more writing challenges. Wishing you all the best with your story series if you start!

      Like

  14. Congrats :)
    It just so happens that I will dabbling into some slice of life blog posts in the future.
    When you mention time travel and traffic jams, it reminded me of the movie Everything Everywhere at once. I’m not sure if you watched it, but there are a lot of crazy, random ridiculous things that happen that reminds me of your traffic jam/time travel idea that you brought up 😂

    Liked by 3 people

  15. A hearty congratulations for your acceptance into that anthology, though I have to admit, I did need to look up “speculative fiction.” (Now I know.) I have neither novels nor short stories rolling around in my head, but I always enjoy the glimpse into your world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘Enjoying a trip into my world’ is such a cool thing to say. Mainly because I feel it consists of routine and boredom. And I enjoy yours too when you’re on your trips! Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Oh thats amazing, congratulations on the publication! I originally started my blog to help with my writing skills – never knowing it would become my job! Awesome work! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah. Almost feels like copywriting, sometimes, where you have to mind your word count. Not really a problem for me though, since I’m an underwriter. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Like

  17. Congratulations on the publication! This is all great advice, especially thinking about the variety and amount of writing experience you can gain with shorter pieces of writing. I think I need to spend more time writing short stories and less time stressing over my novel-length WIPs, lol. I gravitate toward the extra short– flash fiction and poetry– and one of the greatest strengths I’ve seen come from those forms is that you need each word to count and hold its weight. If you apply that concept to the novel, you lose that “saggy middle” and your writing becomes more vivid and intriguing– at least I think it does. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re spot on! I believe every genre has something to teach the writer, from flash fiction to novels. And I’ve also learned SO much more through practice than through books or websites. So maybe the one-million-words rule is true.

      I refuse to believe that I can escape the saggy middle though, lol. Maybe someday.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for adding such an amazing angle!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You can escape the saggy middle! I believe in you :) Actually, I did hear another good piece of advice for avoiding that saggy middle is to focus on one or more of your sub-plots to create new action or suspense. I’ve seen authors unveil some secret about a character at that point, too. Here’s to another million words!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, my non-fiction game is so poor though. The only aspiration I have for that genre is maybe for the likes of David Sedaris or Neil Strauss. But you know what? Now that you’ve said that, I guess I gotta do it, lol. Thanks for being here, Kelvin!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I haven’t written long enough to develop a style, though you make a compelling argument for giving short stories a whirl. One of the people n my critique group writes nothing but short stories. His characters are so outlandish they’re easy to remember.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love writers who go the character-driven route, and I love it when I can picture the exact type of character in a story. My characters and descriptions need work though, so perhaps short stories are exactly what the doctor ordered! Thanks for stopping by, Pete!

      Like

  19. Another stellar post Stu!
    Congrats on being accepted in the anthology and putting the rad into your trad-publishing ambitions. So awesome and great to know just how many rejections it takes to get on piece published. Thanks for the insights and love go short to go long!
    💖👏👏

    Liked by 1 person

    • To be honest, I haven’t been focusing that much on short stories, so I’ve not gone through as many rejections as many writers like to portray (yet). It’s great to have your support though, Cindy, and I appreciate your kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aha, gotcha.. I like the word yet as we never know what is store for us but as we know rejections bring us closer to acceptance 💖
        It’s always a pleasure and you’re most welcome Suart! 💖

        Liked by 1 person

    • Check your back pocket. Maybe you’ll find some short stories there, lol. But yeah, here’s a good place to start too :P

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Hetty, and you know I always appreciate you!

      Like

  20. Congratulations! I resonated with this post. I just seriously took up short story writing and I’m amazed at the tricks I’m picking up that will apply to novel writing–mostly in the revision process.

    Talk to me about those legacy mistakes though…a gazillion times I’ve written to the end of a draft only to find a laundry list of “plot holes” and “adjustments” I need to make to actually have consistency. Hopefully short story writing will help with that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lol. My worst legacy mistake is realising that I’d set up my story towards a certain solution, only to realise that it sucks, and upon changing said solution, I have to backtrack ALL the way back to the beginning to ‘change the entire passage of time’, so to speak. Sad feels right there.

      Yay, we can explore the world of short stories together! Have fun with them!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. The advice is good, after all, I myself do write short stories on my blog. Though I would hardly call 7000 words a short, that one-shot got away from me.

    I’m not writing any one-shots for now, since I’m working on my webserial. Once I’m done with it, I’ll start writing those once again, I’ve got some ideas brewing.

    Enough about me. How can I talk about myself in other comment sections? Talk about selfishness. Stuart, you know that your interview is coming this July?

    Also, a request. Due to coming recession and all, would you write an article about how a writer may survive or thrive during such times?

    Thanks for wonderful advice, Stuart.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome to talk about yourself all you want, Tanish. Always great to have conversations with you.

      A 7,000-word story is awesome. Way beyond my comfort zone of 2,000–3,000, lol, so I’d say you’re pretty baller.

      Woo, that’s amazing. Looking forward to that interview post!

      And while I’d love to give financial survival advice, I don’t think I’m qualified for that since I live a pretty spartan life that not many people would want to aspire to, lol.

      But that was a lovely suggestion and I’ll see if I can come up with alternatives.

      Thanks for stopping by, Tanish!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think I should add this to my CV: “Gives people new perspectives.”

      It’s so cool that you’d say that, and I appreciate you doing so. Also, one year is a great amount of distance to have from your manuscript, so I hope you have fun going to town with it!

      Like

  22. 🎉Congratulations!🎉 How wonderful!

    I like the advice, too. Thousands of years ago (after I lost a job that I assumed I’d have forever) I thought I’d write a series of novels. I bought a few books about novel writing. One of them went into detail about the differences between short stories and novels. It warned readers that NO ONE HAS EVER DONE BOTH FORMS WELL and to try would be the worst choice ever. EVER. The author claimed that a certain type of writer can do novels and a certain type of writer can do novels and that those types have little in common. It also pointed out that no sensible editor would ever – EVER – take a writer seriously if that silly writer attempted both.
    I assumed it was all looneytunes and stopped reading. 🤷‍♀️

    Hooray for the wise words in your post! 👏👏👏👏👏

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL – typo alert! “…a certain type of writer can do novels and a certain type of writer can do novels…” should read “…a certain type of writer can do novels and a certain type of writer can do short stories…” 🙃

      (…and a certain type of writer really ought to proof everything…😂)

      Liked by 2 people

    • Lol, I hate it when writers pass advice off as absolutes. It could be true that the time spent on writing novels means opportunity costs for short stories, but practising the craft is practising the craft. There are no wasted moments doing that.

      And you know what? I’ve learned so much more through writing than by reading books on craft (even though the latter is great for shifting my perspective sometimes).

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment and support!

      Liked by 2 people

    • I know how you feel. It’s almost as though whatever we’re working on isn’t good enough. I feel the exact way writing novels, in that I could actually spend the time writing ‘more important’ things, though what those are are beyond me. Glad to have shared some encouragement with you!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Palahniuk’s method feels like the ‘break your goals into small, manageable chunks’ method for productivity. His book offers practical writing advice that you can act on, which is why I enjoy it. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, the great thing about writing is that there are no rules, so ‘intermediate step’ is all in your head. I’m sure you can get right to writing anything you wish.

      Thanks for your support, and here’s to writing more, whatever medium it is!

      Liked by 1 person

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